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Friday, January 11, 2013

Ethics in Nonfiction for Kids

There’s something special about speaking at the main branch of the New York Public Library. Walking up the grand steps between Patience and Fortitude – I never remember which lion is which – gives one a sense of arrival, that you are a member of that rarified club called writers. And does that feel good.

Last Saturday, Meghan McCarthy, fellow INKers, Deborah Heiligman, Sue Macy, and I, participated in a panel discussion about ethics in nonfiction for kids. It was part of Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literary Salon that meets there the first Saturday of each month. The wood paneled room on the second floor quickly filled as Betsy scurried around for more chairs. Deb, Sue, Meghan, and I took seats atop a plush Oriental carpet. I wondered what great writers stood on these warps and wefts.
With my colleagues permission I taped our panel. Or I should say I taped most of it because my recorder was on the chair beside me, and as I shifted my butt, the recorder would stop. This is yet another reason to always bring along additional recorders. A number of people have asked if there was an audiotape. Rather than playing the entire tape, I’ve pulled together a few excerpts. 
Part of our discussion had to do with selectivity in nonfiction – what we put in our books/what we leave out. I hope my selective choices and shaping of the tape fit the ethical standards of my colleagues.

Betsy started us off with a question about our process. I turned on the recorder as Sue Macy was describing her collection of bicycle memorabilia for her book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom [With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way.]

Sue: I went to a bicycle auction. I also do typical research. I go to libraries and read diaries and scrapbooks. I do a lot of newspaper research because I find reading articles from contemporary newspapers is a really good way to get back to that time period – to see how people are speaking about their subject back then. And now, thanks to the Library of Congress and other sources, a lot of those newspapers are online.

Deborah: Well, I’ll tag on that. I’m a primary source junkie. When I talk about writing nonfiction, my talk is titled “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” And what I mean by that is two-fold, one is you can’t make this stuff up. Nonfiction is so amazingly wonderful. I think we all feel that way. There are great stories out there. And then the other you-can’t-make-this stuff-up means you’re not allowed to make stuff up. When I wrote Charles and Emma, I could have read the bazillions and millions of pages that had already written about Charles Darwin, secondary sources. But I wanted to encounter Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood Darwin on my own. I wanted to meet them not through anyone else’s filters. I was lucky to be able to read letters, autobiographies, diaries, and Darwin’s notebooks. And by so doing that I was able to do original research that nobody else had done. I looked at diary entries and journal entries at the same time as letters and scientific notebooks. Then I pieced together the story of Darwin’s work and his family life. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I was using secondary sources because Emma Darwin was only a line or a paragraph in every book.
            I firmly believe that the person you are married to influences who you are and what you do. I knew in my heart starting out that she was a big influence on Charles Darwin, but I had to do the research to back that up. Since I write mostly about dead people, unlike Sue and Susan, I haven’t figured out how to contact them in any other way, but I do also interview experts. I’m your primary source gal.

Susan:  None of my people are dead. My books are based on interviews with people who represent a subject. They are not the entire representations of the subject, but a piece of it. For example, my last subject was capital punishment, specifically teenagers on death row. One thing I learned quickly from talking to various lawyers was that I knew nothing. Before I could begin working I took a course in capital punishment at NYU Law School. Usually I don’t like to do that. I want to be a blank page so that I’m completely open to the thoughts of the people I interview. But I really needed to know what questions to ask.
            The second thing I have to do is find the people who will participate in the books. That takes most of my time. I go to various organizations that represent people in whatever subject I am studying. I look for the very, very best organizations, ones that sorta get me, and understands what I’m trying to do.

Sue: Do you ever get people who want money from you?

Susan: I’ve had two, what I would call shakedowns, and they are not included in my book. No one is paid.

Deborah: I once had an expert ask for money to read my book. I said, “You know what, I’m going to find somebody else.” And I easily did.

Meghan: I go to antique stores because you can get lots of magazines of a period and get a sense of the time period from ads and articles. Some of the stuff from the 1950s and 60s is very shocking. They were very sexist and racist.

Betsy: Has anyone ever had a book idea that you had to drop because you couldn’t get the research?

Sue: Last year I emailed you [Betsy] a story about the Black List, the Hollywood Black List. It’s still in my head. You have to use the facts to get your story, and I know what the story should be, but the facts didn’t support it. So it’s on hold until I can figure out the angle. I mostly write about women’s history. I want that sort of angle on the Hollywood ten, especially the TV black list. I keep trying and trying and reading things and reading things. That’s the problem with nonfiction. If it doesn’t fall into place, you either do fiction, or you don’t write it.

Susan: That’s where the ethics come in. We have a wide girth, but it has to be based on truth. So what do you do? Do you take a subject and try to find the material that fits your point of view, or do you let the subject lead you?
Meghan: I think it’s going to be slanted by the writer’s point of view to some extent. That’s a problem I find researching. One newspaper says this and another newspaper says this.
I had a horrible book accident. I had this great idea for a book because I had read an autobiography by a guy [Bob Heft] who said he had invented the fifty-star flag. This was in the 1950s. He had just died. He had this whole story about how he did it when he was a teenager in high school. He was on news shows and he posed with celebrities. There was a ton of stuff to back this up. But doing the research with my editor, I thought there was something that was just not right. He said that he was holding up a flag with Eisenhower. My editor asked me to illustrate this but I couldn’t find any photographs of it. She was determined to make this happen. She contacted the Eisenhower library, and it all started to fall apart. They said, “You know, we don’t have any documentation that this actually happened.” We looked into it further and the whole story was bogus. We canceled the project. This guy made up this up, and it turned out that lots of people came up with that same star design.

Deborah: Let me say this one thing. I think a book needs to be labeled fiction or nonfiction. As a grownup or a child I don’t want to be confused by that.

Meghan: I have a thing about Thomas Edison. They say that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb on such and such a date. I’m going to change that. I’m working on a graphic novel about electricity and stuff. I think there are a lot of inaccuracies about Thomas Edison. I didn’t think he was a good guy.

Deborah: Writing is about the choices we make.  In my new picture book, The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos [FYI: to be published in June by Roaring Brook], everything in the book is true, both in words and illustrations. But you sweat this stuff like nobody’s business. This is a book that took me so long to write. It’s a biography, essentially, but guess what, it’s for little kids. And you just can’t get everything in in thirty-two pages and make it a story that moves. I had to craft a story out of this man’s life, which turned out to be not so bad because he had such an amazing life. But in doing so, some things ended up on the cutting room floor. For example, when he was being born, his two older sisters died of Scarlet Fever. That was in many, many drafts, but it highjacked the book. You’re in first or second grade, and can’t get over that his two older sisters died of Scarlet Fever. It was a decision, a choice I made. [Note: Deborah put the sisters’ deaths in the author’s notes.]
We have to make the story true but that doesn’t mean we don’t craft the facts. We have to craft the story, shape the story.

Betsy:  So you’re killing yourselves to be accurate, and you show it to your editor. Have you ever been asked to remove anything that was accurate? Let’s say you put a toilet in outer space, Meghan? [Referring to Megan’s book, Astronaut Handbook]

Meghan: The toilet is in there.

Susan: Years ago I was asked to remove curse words. At the time some of my books covered some heavy-duty nonfiction subjects. My editor asked me to leave out the F-bomb. She said, “Don’t give people the excuse to not buy the book because of the profanities. Let them not buy it because they are racists, or sexists, or homophobic.” That’s changed. There’s lots of profanity in my next book.

Deb: There are lots of bathrooms in your new book.

Susan: Yes, lots of bathrooms.

Sue: I was never asked to take out things, but I was asked to put in things. When I wrote about the women’s baseball league in the 40s and 50s there were no black players. And my editor, Marc Aronson, said, “You have to say that upfront because it was a fact about this league that people should know. And then get it over with.”
            But I said it’s kinda like the putting a pall over the story, like what you were talking about [to Deborah], about the sisters. But I put it in because it was my first book, and he knew what he was talking about. Every critic said, “While there were no blacks in this league …,” they accepted it, and moved on to enjoy the story. So sometimes editors actually know best. [Laughter]
Susan, Meghan, Sue, and Deborah

To read more, Mahnaz Dar covered this event for SLJ.


  1. Excellent wrap-up, Susan. I really do feel we could have continued talking for another hour!

  2. This is a great discussion that goes a long way toward clarifying the use of original source material in nonfiction books. I love the stuff myself and have written several books based solely upon jaw-dropping quotes from original sources. As Deb says (and me too in all my talks), you can't possibly make this stuff up.

  3. My next book - not out for another year or so - will be a little-known WWII civil rights story. The book will be based largely on a set of oral history interviews with the young sailors involved, done by a Berkeley professor decades ago. Maybe the greatest moment of my writing life was when the professor allowed me to make copies of his interviews, which literally do not exist anywhere else. That's a non-fiction writer's idea of excitement!

  4. I agree, Sue, we could have talked at least another hour. Like Roz and Steve, the hunt for jaw-dropping quotes from original sources, along with eureka writing moments is my idea of the good life.

  5. This was so interesting. Living in FL, I was still able to "attend" your program. Thanks for posting this. I write fiction at present, but am thinking about nonfiction in the future. I enjoyed reading of your thoughts and experiences.

  6. This sounds like an amazing talk- and I am so happy you shared it with those of us on the other side of the globe!